Neican: 16 August 2020

China Neican is a weekly column on the China Story blog written by Yun Jiang and Adam Ni from the China Policy Centre in Canberra. Neican 内参 or “internal reference” are limited circulation reports only for the eyes of high-ranking officials in China, dealing with topics deemed too sensitive for public consumption. But rest assured, everyone is welcome to read what we write. You can find all past issues of Neican here.

1. Confirmed fears in Hong Kong

On Monday, Hong Kong authorities made a series of high profile arrests under the new national security law. The targets of the roundup was pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai, his sons, senior executives of Next Digital media group (parent of Apple Daily), and Agnes Chow, a pro-democracy activist and co-founder of Demosistō. On the same day, 200 Hong Kong police officers raided the offices of Apple Daily, seizing boxes of materials. 

Source: Apple Daily

Hongkongers have expressed their support for Apply Daily this week, buying shares and copies of the paper, as well as placing advertisements in it. Lai and Chow were both released two days later on bail.

The arrests further confirm fears that the national security law will be used by Beijing to suppress media freedom and political dissent in Hong Kong. As we noted earlier:

There are three core problems with the new law. First, the way that this law came about. It was conceived in secret in Beijing without the input of Hong Kongers, which goes against the rule of law concept as understood under Hong Kong’s judicial system… 

Second, the scopes of the four listed national security crimes [secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign or external forces] are ambiguous and extremely wide. This means it covers just about any activity that is seen by Beijing as contrary to its interests…

Third, the new law will have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and political activism. Already, we have seen numerous arrests under the law for dissent in addition to the disbandment of pro-democracy political organisations…In addition to the punitive effects of the new law, the deterrent effects on political speech and dissent is likely to be huge as no one is quite sure where the red lines are at.

Jimmy Lai, 71, was born in Guangzhou in 1948. At the age of 12, he entered Hong Kong as a stowaway on a boat. He worked his way up from a child labourer in the garment industry to become the founder of Giordano, a clothing retailer. Today, the name seems like a distant memory, but in the 1990s Giordano was a big brand in mainland China at a time when the demand for fashion was exploding. Lai then moved into media, founding Apple Daily in 1995.

Lai has been a long-time champion of democracy in Hong Kong. His Apply Daily has been unabashedly supportive of the pan-democracy camp and critical of Beijing. China’s state media has repeatedly labelled Lai a “traitor” and accused him of treachery by colluding with foreign forces. Lai has been a UK citizen since 1996, but there is every sign that he will stay and fight.

Agnes Chow, 23, is a pro-democracy political activist and co-founded Demosistō in 2016 with Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and others. She is one of the new generation of political activists who rose to prominence in the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement, which saw young protesters channelling their energy into participatory politics. 

Chow became Demosistō’s candidate in the 2018 Hong Kong Island by-election after Law was disqualified from the Legislative Council over an oath-taking controversy. But her candidacy was also disqualified by the Electoral Affairs Commission, on the basis that her party advocates “self-determination”. Demosistō was self-disbanded hours after the National People’s Congress in Beijing passed the national security law for Hong Kong last month. 

In arresting two of the most prominent democracy activists in Hong Kong, Beijing is sending a clear message that, despite international pressure, it will press ahead with its program for Hong Kong. The troubles for Jimmy Lai and Agnes Chow as well as other pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, are unlikely to stop here: there is every reason to think that Beijing will go further in punishing its political enemies in Hong Kong.

2. Directive on Food Wastage

Alright everyone, this is not a drill. Xi Jinping has made an important directive on food waste (餐饮浪费行为). Many localities and governments have commenced the Clear Plate Campaign (光盘行动, and incidentally, 光盘 also means CD/DVD). The China Association of Performing Arts has also banned any fake eating or overeating in live streaming.

Many unofficial edicts have popped up, encouraging everyone to order n-1 dishes (meaning, ordering one fewer dish than the number of people). This reminds us of previous food-related campaigns pursued under Xi, but in the context of anti-corruption. In one well-known instance in 2012, reporters and netizens were astounded that a group of ten officials (including Xi) only ordered “four dishes and one soup” (四菜一汤). But importantly, we do note that pork dumplings, zucchini dumplings and spring rolls that were served for this meal were not classified as “dishes” but instead fell under the “staple food” 主食 (usually rice) category. Very controversial!

Much of the focus of the anti-corruption drive was on lavish banquets of officials, affecting sales of the famous Chinese liquor Maotai (茅台) (we never had the fortune to taste), among other luxury items. Officials were even driven literally underground to have banquets.

This time, the food wastage campaign is targeting everyone, not just officials. This isn’t the first mass campaign on food wastage, which also happened during Mao before (浪费是极大的犯罪). And yes, “conserving” (节约) has also been drummed into most people from young, reaching the status of an important “virtue” (美德). 

Interestingly, before the disastrous result of the Great Leap Forward was known, people were encouraged to overeat, as this showed great confidence in overabundance from the commune system. Mao’s solution to the supposed overabundance of food was quoted by People Daily on August 11, 1958: “Overly abundant [food], the state would not want it, nobody wants it. Let the members of the commune eat more! One can have five meals a day!”

The ensuing Great Famine took the estimated lives of between 30 to 55 million people. 

As millions were succumbing to hunger, China was still sending food exports overseas to Eastern bloc countries, and giving foreign aid to countries like North Korea and Albania. Today, foreign aid is again being discussed in the context of the current food campaign. To many people in China, foreign aid seems like a waste of money when much of China is still underdeveloped. Some ask why should they not enjoy food just to save a few pennies when the state is wasting billions on foreign aid?

民以食为天, food is the most important thing to people. We conclude this section with an excerpt from a Tang dynasty poem known to almost everyone in China and quoted by Xi:



Who knows that every grain in bowl

Is the fruit of so much pain and toil

3. Confucius Institutes

The US has designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center as a foreign mission of China. This means staff will need to register and follow similar restrictions as Chinese diplomats in the US. The US has previously designated nine Chinese media outlets as foreign missions.

The US Government has taken action targeted at Confucius Institutes before. Last year, universities hosting Confucius Institutes were prohibited from receiving funding from the Department of Defence for Chinese language studies. Quite a few universities closed Confucius Institutes as a result, with now just 65 remaining on US campuses.

Foreign government funding of research and teaching in universities has become increasingly controversial in recent years. This is especially the case as China is now seen as an adversary by the US Government. Through Confucius Institutes, the Chinese government has the capacity to influence how the Chinese language is taught. Such influence likely takes subtle forms at the moment, such as in the selection of the topics and materials, rather than overt censorship or blatant propaganda, which can easily cause a backlash. On the other hand, for universities that still host Confucius Institutes, it is possible that Chinese language programs may cease to exist if some of these institutes are closed.

The new designation means that the US Government will have more visibility over the operation of Confucius Institutes in the US.

More broadly, the US and a number of other western countries are becoming increasingly alert about the operations of Chinese party-state entities, Chinese companies as well as entities with links to China on their territories. We are likely to see further scrutiny and restrictions on these operations as bilateral relations deteriorate.

While some security challenges are real, the concerned countries also need to ensure they don’t throw out the baby (openness, liberal values etc) just because the bathwater is thought to be cold and dirty. Last week in discussing technology decoupling and restrictions, we noted the following, which applies across a range of other issues: 

Liberal democracies can not hope to tackle the threats represented by Beijing to the global information environment simply by adopting its tactics, framing and mentality. 

We need to be cautious lest we one day look in the mirror and discover a monster.

4. Justice in China: Zhang Yuhuan and Tang Hui

Farmer Zhang Yuhuan’s ordeal began in October 1993 when the bodies of two boys turned up in a village reservoir near Nanchang, the capital of the eastern Jiangxi Province. Zhang was a suspect and was detained. In 1995, a court in Nanchang sentenced him to death over the alleged crime, a sentence which was commuted to life imprisonment.

Zhang maintained that he was forced to make the confession under torture. In the 27 years that he was in prison, he has always maintained his innocence. He and his family have appealed on multiple occasions for judicial review. 

Earlier this month, in a retrial of the case, the Supreme People’s Court in Jiangxi found Zhang not guilty based on a lack of sufficient evidence.

Zhang’s release has sparked a fierce discussion by Chinese netizens on miscarriages of justice. Forced confession is persistent despite efforts by the Chinese Government to stop the practice with respect to criminal (and not political) cases in recent years. It continues to undermine China’s justice system.

The lack of faith in China’s justice system leads people to seek other ways of redress. One of these is petitioning the authorities. A prominent example is Tang Hui, whose daughter was kidnapped, raped, and sold to an underground brothel.

Tang was sent to a reeducation through labour camp when she complained of her treatment by local authorities, which initially refused to assist her. It turned out the local police were connected to the brothel operators.

 Source: by Zhang Chenchu via Twitter

Over the years, she has continued to petition provincial and central authorities for justice and redress. Her appeals have been met with partial success. Her high-profile case illustrates the ways in which public security and justice often fail the people they are meant to protect. 

To put Zhang and Tang’s individual cases into the larger context of Chinese politics and legal system, here are a few words by Elisa Nesossi:

By claiming to solve the problem of miscarriages of justice, Xi can legitimise his political authority—indeed, in his view justice can be achieved only if coordinated by the centre of political power. However, contradictory agendas promoted under the broad umbrella of [governing the country through law] have made it clear that Xi’s aim has not been that of increasing accountability at the expense of coercion, but of intensifying both for the sake of political utility. […] [The party’s] paramount concern is to ensure the preservation of the political status quo and Party’s legitimacy. Overall, this means that miscarriages of justice will continue to be remedied selectively to serve a certain political agenda.

While Tang was in the labour camp, she was asked by the staff to recite Dizigui 弟子規 (“Standards for being a Good Pupil and Child”), a Qing dynasty Confucian instruction manual for the young that emphasises filial piety. Here are the the first few three-character verses of the text:


When my parents call me, I must answer right away. When they ask me to do something, I must not be lazy to do. When my parents instruct me, I will listen respectfully. When my parents scold me, I must accept and obey them.

5. Azar in Taiwan 

US Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar visited Taiwan on a 3-day trip this week. He is the most senior US official to visit Taiwan since Washington switched diplomatic recognition of China from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. His visit was enabled by the 2018 Taiwan Travel Act, allowing high-level visits between the two sides.

Despite the focus of the talks on health cooperation, Azar went to Taiwan with a strong political message. In addition to meeting Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen, he also visited the shrine of the late Lee Teng-hui. Lee, the first directly elected President in Taiwan, died earlier this month at the age of 97.

During his visit, Azar repeatedly praised Taiwan’s democracy and played up its relationship with the US. The message to Beijing is not subtle: the US will accelerate the development of its relations with a democratic Taipei as it toughens up on Beijing.

The likelihood of the (re)establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and Taiwan is still moderate and some way off at this point given the hoops that both countries will need to jump through. It would very much depend on the trajectory of US-China relations. 

That being said, we need to shift our expectations. In recent months, we have seen US policies with respect to China that the two of us would have thought highly unlikely just a few years ago. If bilateral relations continue to deteriorate, the (re)establishment of US-Taiwan diplomatic relations will become more likely. From the current vantage, it is now on the horizon of distinct possibilities.

Quote of the week


In the highest antiquity, (the people) did not know that there were (their rulers). In the next age they loved them and praised them. In the next they feared them; in the next they despised them.

(From: Dao De Jing 道德经 (translation from Chinese Text Project))

Xi used the phrase 日用而不觉 (“using daily but not realising”) by Tang dynasty writer Wu Zhongshu 吴仲舒, in the context of party building. In a July 2019 article in Qiushi, Xi stated: 


The political culture within the party is “used daily without [us] realising it”, and it has a subtle influence on the political ecology within the party. It is necessary to strengthen the construction of political culture within the party, and let the ideals, beliefs, values, and fine traditions advocated by the Party penetrate into the minds and hearts of party members and cadres.

This “using daily but not realising” quote reminded us of a much more famous quote in the Dao De Jing on rulers. Dao De Jing (also known as Tao Te Ching), the foundational text of Taoism, is attributed to Laozi 老子 (meaning “Old Master”). The text is very short (only around 5000 characters) and subject to many different interpretations over time (it’s supposedly the most translated book in the world after the Bible). It dates back to the Spring and Autumn or Warring States period (771 to 476 BCE).

The conventional interpretation of this section is that Laozi has categorised rulers into four categories, ordered from superior to inferior. The best rulers are the ones where the people do not even realise the ruler exists. They don’t speak much, yet govern their countries well. Their kingship is simply a natural order of things.

Next in the hierarchy is a ruler who is loved and praised by the people. It seems rather strange today that a ruler who is praised by the people is in fact not the best. Next is the ruler that is feared by the people. And the worst is one that is hated by the people.

Where will history place Xi?


Made in China Journal is an excellent source for scholarly work and commentary on China, with a focus on Chinese labour and civil society. It now features a new section offering two syllabi on Chinese labour and Chinese development.

This week on China Story:

  • Adam Ni, Dynastic cycle and shadows of the past over Xi’s China: Like Mao Zedong, Xi Jinping worries that his party could lose power through a combination of corruption, complacency, decay and crises. Both are well aware of the concept of the dynastic cycle, which posits that in China’s history no dynasty has been able to escape the vicious cycle of the rise and fall of political power. In a bid to escape this cycle, Mao sought absolute power and the transformation of China into a communist paradise. The tragedy of high Maoism that ensued should serve as a cautionary tale today for the Party under Xi as it tightens control over Chinese society.
  • John Lee, The global contest for 5G escalates: Huawei, ‘clean networks’ and digital decoupling: With the recent expansion of the US-led ‘Clean Networks’ initiative, 5G wireless appears to be the leading edge of a Trump administration campaign to ‘decouple’ the United States and like-minded partners from Chinese digital technology across the board. Yet the prospects for US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declared goal to build a worldwide digital fortress against ‘malign actors such as the Chinese Communist Party’ are uncertain at best.
  • Osmond Chiu, COVID-19 has led to widespread incidents of anti-Asian racism in Australia: A recently released report analysed nearly 400 reports of incidents of COVID-19 related anti-Asian racism in Australia between April and June 2020. The report found the typical incident was a random stranger using racial slurs targeting a woman in a public space. Incidents of anti-Asian racism have been turned into a geopolitical football between Australia and China. An improved capacity to respond to racism with confidence will enable Australia to better neutralise the use of racism as a political tactic by China.